Leading Scientists Question 'Brain Games' Effectiveness, Call for More Research

As baby boomers slide gently towards their golden years and prepare to face a host of new health concerns -- including worries about mental decline -- there is a growing demand for products that promise to alleviate, erase and/or reverse signs of memory loss and the deteriorating cognitive capabilities.

Many companies now offer a selection of computer-based cognitive-training software, or "brain games," that promise to keep consumers mentally sharp if they just invest the necessary time (and money).

But do these games actually do what they purport to? Not really, at least according to a group of more than 70 prominent psychologists, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, who have written an open letter taking these companies to task for making “exaggerated and misleading claims" in order to "exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline."

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"We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do," they write. "The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles."

Their point isn't that brain training is harmful, just that there is little scientific proof that it translates into improvements in everyday life. While isolated studies have shown that brain exercises can enhance performance at a specific cognitive task, a meta-analysis of research on memory training suggests that such exercises produce only "short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize."

That, of course, is not how brain game companies are spinning it. "We'll help create a training program that's right for you based on neuroscience research from top universities around the world," Luminosity, one of the biggest players in the "neuro-wellness" industry, explains in an introductory video. "Every game targets an ability important to you, like memory, attention, problem solving and more."

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The researchers worry that these types of advertisements – which promise that if consumers simply adhere to a training regiment, they can fundamentally improve their cognitive abilities -- may convince older adults to swap activities that are known to improve cognitive health for brain games, whose benefits are unproven. "Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults," they write.

The bottom line: Brain games aren’t hurtful, and additional research may one day reveal that they do have longstanding cognitive benefits. But the evidence isn't there yet. For now, when faced with the choice between playing a brain game or going on a brisk walk, visiting a friend or learning a new language, it's probably best to ditch the game, according to the researchers.

This open letter was first reported on by The Guardian.

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